If you remove what you see in live theater or in movies — actors’ expressions and movement, scenery, costumes — what’s left is simply sound.
J Hagenbuckle, whose medium is “radio theater,” says that this pared-down approach to art can also be the most vivid. “I love how sound paints pictures in the imagination,” he says. “You’re given a little to one of your senses and the mind creates the rest. Theater and movies tend to lay everything out for you and leave little to imagine. For me, art that is suggestive, not illustrative or literal, is the most compelling and satisfying.”
Hagenbuckle does his own writing, direction, sound design, and music for Cape Noir Radio Theater, his twice-monthly show on Provincetown’s WOMR; the next installment will air at 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 26. He’s bringing back old-fashioned radio drama with his own twist: Hagenbuckle works mainly in the genres of horror and mystery, and the stories he tells are creepy and darkly funny.
Among the 26 half-hour episodes already released and available on WOMR’s website are a few fables, sci-fi romps, and personal narratives — but scary stories have proved to be the most popular.
For Halloween, Hagenbuckle recommends that you listen (in the dark, obviously) to
“Ick-a-Body” (involving voodoo and a grisly murder), “Dracula: Blood of the Vampire,” “The Untold Tell Tale Heart” (a new version of the Edgar Allan Poe classic), and the psycho-thriller “Homecoming.” There’s also “The Chatham Ghost” and the family-friendly ghost story “Chopsticks on the Ohio.”
This month’s radio choice has been a rebroadcast of “The Lost City,” one of his three stories about a detective named Frank Brand. It includes a pivotal Halloween party, a sea monster, and the Wicked Witch of the West. The second half of the story airs just in time for Spooky Bear.
The Frank Brand stories both spoof and pay homage to a literary style Hagenbuckle grew up loving. A private detective’s job, for example, is “not much of a living, but it keeps me in Scotch and Luckies.” A giant sea creature is “slimy, purple, handless arms decorated with suction cups, pulsating like a James Brown concert light show at the Fillmore.”
Hagenbuckle has worked as a freelance theatrical sound designer-composer and sometime writer-director since a 1988 show at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. He’s been involved with theaters on the Cape, in Boston and the Berkshires, on and off Broadway, and in London. The first Cape Noir episode, “Frank Brand Private Eye in Double Trouble,” was planned as a play presented in live-radio-show style for Cape Cod Theatre Company/Harwich Junior Theatre in West Harwich.
But when Covid closed theaters in 2020, Hagenbuckle converted that script to audio he could create on his equipment at home in Harwich. He submitted it to WOMR executive director John Braden and operations manager Matthew Dunn and was surprised when they offered him a regular slot.
“Cape Noir Radio Theater is well written and acted and a pure delight,” says Braden.
“He puts a ton of work into each episode,” adds Dunn, noting that the show “fits our mission of presenting local voices, and there’s nothing like it available anywhere else.”
Episodes feature Cape actors in stories inspired by Hagenbuckle’s childhood love of thrillers, suspense, and the supernatural. Hagenbuckle himself is a frequent voice. He says he’s never wanted to act on stage but enjoys the chance to talk in the manner of long-ago crime shows, with the option of rerecording his lines to get them just right.
Hagenbuckle grew up in Orleans, where his parents ran a sailing camp and his father taught elementary school. He spent time in Vermont, Arizona, and New York City, but he returned to the Cape in 2000, working as a sound designer and as a musician with the Cyclones and Out Late with Diana Di Gioia.
The Outer Cape is featured in some episodes, like one about his childhood, replete with references to surfing and Nauset Beach. The Cape environment, he says, inspires his radio work.
“I have this idea of a beautiful kind of symmetry between the sound of the waves — which is pretty constant and so much a part of the environment out here — and this whole project of sound being broadcast over the airwaves,” he says.
In his work on Cape Noir, Hagenbuckle has enjoyed the freedom of topic choice and style that WOMR allows. He has written 15 original stories, adapted three more, and worked with a range of others, including his twin brother, Geoffrey.
A planned future episode is a radio version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920 silent horror film Hagenbuckle adapted and directed years ago for CCTC/HJT, starring Casey Clark and David Wallace. He plans to use both actors again.
In 2022, Hagenbuckle recorded Live at the WOMR Studios, an episode that revolves around sound as vibration and how that relates to the philosophy of the “music of the spheres.” He says it’s the most personal episode he’s written — it’s a mystical story but explores how he values sound as a way to experience the world, how sound has affected his life, and how it connects the world around him.
The event: J Hagenbuckle’s Cape Noir Radio Theater
The time: 8:30 p.m., second and fourth Thursdays of each month
The place: WOMR, 92.1 FM in Provincetown; WFMR, 91.3 FM in Orleans
The cost: Free; previous episodes at womr.org